East Germany’s Secret Police Used to Spy on Skateboarders
For whatever reason the public perception of skateboarding seems to have changed over the last decade. Skaters on TV aren’t obnoxious, glue-huffing wasters any more; they’re admirable young men building community skateparks on Google ads. But the sport, or the culture that goes hand-in-hand with the sport, at least, did used to be seen as more of a threat to all things wholesome.
One country where this held especially true was communist East Germany in the 1980s—also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR—before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Skateboarding was American, therefore subversive and dangerous, so the Stasi began monitoring the skating community to keep tabs on any potential troublemakers or ringleaders. The perceived danger quickly made its way into the state media. A news clip from the time instructs viewers that it is “our duty to protect our children and youths from [skateboarding],” meaning skaters were demonized and left to smuggle Californian-made boards over the border if they wanted to skate anything more advanced than a plank of wood attached to some rollerskate wheels.
German filmmaker Marten Persiel made a “hybrid documentary” about the history of skating in the GDR called This Ain’t California, which was released last year in Germany and gets its international cinematic release next month. The film was criticized on its release for its liberal use of reconstructions and the fact its lead character never actually existed, but Marten told me, “all the things that happen in the film are true stories.” He simply amalgamated them to create a lead character who he could hang the narrative from. And in a “hybrid documentary,” that doesn’t seem like too big of a deal.
I spoke to Marten about his film, skateboard smuggling, and hugely successful punk bands made up entirely of secret service agents.
NSA Spying on America’s Allies Is Business As Usual
Unsurprisingly, the news that the NSA has been monitoring the calls of dozens of world leaders hasn’t gone down particularly well with any of those world leaders. In fact, after suspecting that the US might have been snooping on her communications, last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel rang up Obama herself to demand some answers. A couple of days later, it emerged that her phone has potentially been monitored for more than a decade by the supposedly friendly American government.
In response to the latest revelations to be brought to light by Edward Snowden’s leaks, Germany and Brazil last week proposed that a UN resolution be drawn up to put a cap on America’s “indiscriminate” and “extra-territorial” surveillance. Twenty-one countries—including US allies Mexico and France—are now discussing such a resoluatoin. Ironically, there’s every chance that these talks about the issue will find their way into an NSA analyst’s earpiece at some point, since an earlier Snowden leak alleged that the US has bugged the UN headquarters in the past.
This type of surveillance isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, according to Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countries all over the world do surveillance of their friends and enemies,” he told me. “That’s been happening for years.” However, he did stress that “the scope and magnitude of these [spying] initiatives is shocking to some folks… On the one hand you have the Obama administration sending a clear sign of its willingness to partner with Latin America, to break with the past and regard these countries as equals. But on the other: ‘We’re also watching you.’”
Jacob Appelbaum Doesn’t Have Much Hope for the Future of Privacy
Jacob Appelbaum has been called the “most dangerous man in cyberspace.” But he’s not, and it’s a label that pisses him off. In reality, Appelbaum is a renowned cybersecurity expert who happens to be one of the developers for the Tor Projec,; a WikiLeaks collaborator who recently co-authored a book with Julian Assange, and a trusted friend of Edward Snowden confidant Laura Poitras, with whom he’s working on the NSA links forDer Spiegel.
In 2010, Jacob became a target of the US intelligence services due to his links with WikiLeaks; he’s been detained and had his electronic equipment seized a number of times. Not particularly fond of the persecution he was facing, Appelbaum moved to Germany, where he has been approached by almost all the main German political parties as a computer expert, and has been consulting on films dealing with cybersurveillance and the current digital-rights climate.
On the day of our interview, his colleagues at the Chaos Computer Club—Europe’s largest hacking collective—managed to break the security on Apple’s iPhone 5 fingerprint scanner. And, Appelbaum promised, there were to be more big developments on the horizon for the Tor network. We sat down for a chat about whether or not the possibility of individual freedom has all but disappeared in the modern world.
VICE: What would you say is the best way to understand the internet, rather than thinking of it as just “cyberspace”?
Jacob Appelbaum: There’s no real separation between the real world and the internet. What we’ve started to see is the militarization of that space. That isn’t to say that it just started to happen, just that we’ve started to see it in an incontrovertible, “Oh, the crazy paranoid people weren’t crazy and paranoid enough,” sort of way. In the West, we see extreme control of the internet—the NSA/GCHQ stuff like the quantum insertion that Der Spiegel just covered… the Tempora program. Really, these aren’t about controlling the internet, it’s about using the internet to control physical space and people in physical space. That is to say they’re using the internet as a gigantic surveillance machine. And because you can’t opt out of the machine anymore, it’s a problem.
Obviously it’s an imperfect system, though, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten caught.
I agree that there’s something to be said about how they’re not perfect, but that’s the whole point; they present this all-seeing eye as if it’s the perfect solution, but it’s actually not a perfect solution and has some serious existential threats to democracy itself. You can’t have the largest spying system ever built and also say that somehow it won’t be abused.
Is the only alternative to that a system where anonymity is entirely guaranteed, even if you’re committing fraud or something?
It’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of anonymity. For example, here we are in this restaurant in Berlin, and neither of us has a cell phone on. Geographically, we’re anonymous, but we’re not going to defraud this restaurant. Likewise, on the internet there’s no reason my ISP should know the websites that I visit and where I’m located, and at no point does that necessitate that anything bad will happen. Though you will have some undesirable behavior, there is a larger undesirable behavior to consider, which is that the internet as a gigantic global spying machine is not what we want for human society.
The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls
On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.
This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)
All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.
Read more about bad cops
New Media Shield Law Would Only Shield Corporate Media
Recently, Americans have witnessed a barrage of scandals regarding the federal government’s extension of their surveillance powers. Following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations—which of course point to the National Security Agency’s spy programs and the FISA Court’s endorsement of broad domestic surveillance policies—the American citizenry’s right to privacy (4th Amendment) has taken center stage. The truth of these invasive and unconstitutional policies is giving rise to further argument, and laying ground for a practical forum to engage elected officials to more clearly define citizen rights in the digital era.
Yet, while Americans are engrossed in the debate over whether or not their government should be allowed to collect and examine the online data of citizens en masse, particularly without suspicion of criminal activity, the vehicle by which these revelations came to light—journalism—is now also under attack.
The trial of former CIA agent Jeffery Sterling, who faces charges under the Espionage Act, has provided Americans insight into how the federal government interprets the rights of journalists. In 2008 New York Times reporter James Risen was ordered to testify against Sterling, allegedly a source in his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. Risen. The Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, condemned the order and fought the subpoena. In a two-to-one ruling this past July, the fourth circuit of appeals issued this shocking statement: “There is no first amendment testimonial privilee, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify… in criminal proceedings.” Risen has subsequently stated that he’d rather be imprisoned than reveal the identity of his source.
Restore the Fourth Wants the Government to Stop Spying & Lying
The march ended on the stairs of Federal Hall, where, one person took out his iPhone and read the Fourth Amendment aloud and perpetual protester Reverend Billy Talen led a skit that dramatized President Obama and President George W. Bush spying on and arresting ordinary citizens. Everyone in attendance vowed to continue the fight to protect civil liberties, and when Ben Doernberg, who led the NYC march, said his last words and people began to disperse, a man in the crowd yelled at the top of his lungs:
“Snowden is a hero! Snowden is a patriot!”
A final chant ensued:
“Snowden is me, Snowden is you, if they arrest Snowden, we know what to do!”
Afterward, I talked to Ben about how the protest came together and what the organization’s future goals were.
VICE: What is Restore the Fourth?
Ben Doernberg: Restore the Fourth is a grassroots, non-partisan movement that has been organized over just the last few weeks to oppose the unconstitutional, sweeping surveillance policies that we found out the NSA is pursuing. Essentially, what we were about today was turning out and showing that people do care about their constitutional rights, and they’re willing to take a stand. I mean, this is a tough day, right? It’s a holiday, it’s really hot, but people care.
And why should people care?
People should care because this is a constitutional right, and when the American people don’t stand up for constitutional rights, we’ve seen the direction that that goes in—whether its McCarthyism, whether it’s the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in, essentially, prison camps. When there’s pressure to take away liberties for security, it doesn’t work, and if people don’t push back, we end up with some of the worst things in American history happening. It’s really important to take a stand as soon as possible to kind of reverse the tide. And I think we’re starting to see that.
There’s a letter written to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, by 26 senators, demanding an explanation on what’s going on. So you are starting to see a groundswell.
Do you think that Americans generally are OK with these NSA spying programs? Polls on the subject have said different things.
What you see with the polling is, depending on how you ask the question, you get different answers. What that says to people who have experience with polling is that people don’t know. People haven’t made up their minds yet. Maybe 20 percent [of Americans] feel strongly that [the spying programs are] a great idea, about 45 percent are really strongly against it, and then there are about 30 percent in the middle who aren’t quite sure yet. I think that’s where a movement like Restore the Fourth comes in—we’re hoping to convince that 30 percent that our constitutional rights are worth fighting for.
Introducing Hello NSA – Generate a sentence guaranteed to catch the government’s attention.
VICE Podcast Show: Jeremy Scahill on National Security and ‘Dirty Wars’
The VICE Podcast Show is a weekly unedited discussion which delves inside the minds of some of the most interesting, creative, and bizarre people we know. This week, we speak with Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for the Nation, whose work covering America’s special-operations forces and targeted killings in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia is chronicled in the recently released documentary, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. As the US continues to expand its use of covert counterterrorism measures worldwide, Scahill argues that far from making Americans safer, these measures are in fact undermining national security.
Watch it here
Hiding Your Calls and Texts from Big Brother
The recent news reports that the US government can pull whatever data it wants from the internet and has free rein to peek at your phone records might have been shocking initially, but really they just underscored something already known (or at least assumed) by lots of people—we’re being watched pretty much all the time. Thanks to all the technology we casually use every day, everyone from corporations to government intelligence agencies to petty criminals have the opportunity to snoop through our stuff on a level that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago. There are some measures you can take to hide from the NSA, but one of the most aggressive ways to guard your data is using the products available from Silent Circle, a tech start-up that sells software that encrypts calls, texts, emails, and files. The company, which has been around since last year, employs well-known cryptography experts like Jon Callas and Phil Zimmermann, the creator of the widely used PGP email encryption program, and they also own servers in Canada and Switzerland, where the laws are more privacy-friendly than those of the US. Even if they did open their servers to law enforcement or other government agencies, they say, there’s little to find there—the keys to decipher their customers’ encrypted calls and messages are generated on the users’ own devices and automatically deleted shortly afterward.
Obviously, a company providing a way for individuals—and potentially criminals—to communicate in secret might worry law-enforcement agencies. But Silent Circle isn’t worried about that, and they say that they abide by the laws while giving people an edge over data-gathering busybodies. I recently chatted on the phone with CEO Mike Janke and CTO Jon Callas about the right to privacy, what I got wrong in a previous article, and why even the FBI is buying their products.
VICE: Surveillance is in the news because of the NSA stuff. But obviously, the government isn’t the only one monitoring people and collecting information. What are some common non-NSA threats to people’s privacy?
Jon Callas: The first obvious one is the Chinese government, who do an awful lot of spying, particularly on people who do business. Then there is the usual gang of identity-stealing criminals usually based in Eastern Europe. And there are a lot of cases when, if you’re in business, there are specific people who might engage in espionage against you. There are a lot of industries where the companies spy on each other all the time.
Mike Janke: For the average citizen, it’s not just about the threat of criminal hackers. Many other countries in the world have organizations similar to our NSA with very similar mandates, and many of those operate without the same type of oversight the US has, if you want to call it oversight. Also, how do you feel from a personal privacy perspective that your texts, the websites you shop on, the calls you make—whether it’s to an illicit lover or for a business deal—the pictures you share, and the documents you send are being collected, collated, repackaged, and sold as data? Where is your version of privacy and what do you use to reign [surveillance] in?
Do you think that this is a moral question? Do we have a fundamental right to keep our communications private?
Jon: Absolutely. In my view, in Silent Circle’s view, every person in this world, regardless of their station in life or religion, should expect a level of basic human privacy. And many of the people on the internet have no understanding on what level they are giving that up.
Yes, the NSA Can Spy on Every American
On June 9th, two reporters from the Guardian newspaper announced to the world the source of one of the most significant classified document leaks in history. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old national security contractor from Hawaii, revealed that he was compelled by conscience to inform the world about a massive abuse of authority perpetrated by the US National Security Agency. According to the documents Snowden provided, which have been authenticated, the US government has been systematically collecting the phone records and online communications of millions of American citizens.
Both the media and the public were shocked by the news that the NSA had such broad digital surveillance capabilities. A program utilized by the agency, code-named “PRISM,” provides intelligence analysts with the ability to intercept almost any form of online communication, from any person. Government officials claim the program cannot be used to target US citizens. However, US intelligence agencies have planned to implement this type of program domestically for years.
We learned earlier this year that the FBI’s top priority for 2013 is to increase their online surveillance authority. This directive—they claim—developed from an ever-widening gap between existing wiretap laws and the accelerated growth of online communications. According to the FBI, the limitations on their surveillance powers may now pose a “threat to public safety.” This problem is officially referred to by the bureau as “Going Dark.”
In 2011, before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, then General Counsel of the FBI Valerie Caproni made the following statement: “…the FBI and other government agencies are facing a potentially widening gap between our legal authority to intercept electronic communications pursuant to court order and our practical ability to actually intercept those communications.” It isn’t a stretch to describe the scenario given as fictitious taken recent revelations about the true power of the FBI to intercept our data.